It’s hard to handle Hari.” This is the first sentence Harinath Govindaraj says to me when we meet at Gili Lankanfushi, before adding: “Because I’m crazy!”
I soon realise he’s not joking, but it’s because the resort’s executive chef, who prefers to speak in the third person, is driven by a burning passion for doing something he loves. And he’s worked long and hard to get where he is.
When creativity strikes at midnight, he’ll test recipes until the sun rises. He goes into a trance-like state when describing tastes. His eyes light up when he talks about fresh produce. He oversees numerous menus (each outlet on the island has a different offering – including in-villa dining). And no culinary challenge is insurmountable, because for him, there’s no such thing as second best.
This ambition means one thing for guests: you’ll be consistently presented with flavours and concoctions that play with your palate – and in terms of meal times at the Gili, you’ll certainly never be bored.
Here’s a taste of what’s on offer; we’re pretty sure you’ll head back for more.
FROM PLANT TO PLATE
Arguably one of the most distinctive features of Gili Lankanfushi is its organic garden – living proof that sustainability is significant at the resort. Set in the centre of the island, it is, in chef Hari’s words, also the “heart of the kitchen” because of its abundant offering. Rows of washed-wooden veggie boxes brim with 18 different herbs, frilly Chinese lettuce, beach lettuce, morning glory, rocket, dangling bitter gourds, chives and fennel flowers (the chef’s favourites), passionfruit and more.
This picture-perfect plot is the chef’s main source of inspiration and it has played a major role in his growth. “The plants really talk to me,” he says. “They’ll talk to you, too – it just depends if you’re ready to listen. Respect nature and it will always reward you.”
Absolutely no chemicals or pesticides are used by the gardening team. Instead, natural solutions such as fermented banana skin or rice-water sprays are used to ward off pests. Compost is made from kitchen wastage, dried and fresh leaves as well as treatment water which comes from a traditional Sri Lankan “recipe”. The result is healthy soil with happy worms, which apparently thrive on leftover watermelon skin.
When Hari took the helm of Gili’s kitchen, one of the first steps he took was to remove all artificial food colourings being used. He’s currently working on creating natural colours using an assortment of edible, locally grown flowers from the garden such as hibiscus, which he will dehydrate to create powders. These plant’s petals also pepper the plates served during his private vegan lunch and dinners, which are all prepared live and possess the power to convert even the most die-hard carnivore.
Lunch, which can easily stretch over a couple of hours, begins with an extraordinary aloe vera coconut ceviche (deemed worthy of a gold award by Food & Hotel Asia) followed by a just-picked salad, green gazpacho (blitzed on the spot) and a cucumber, basil and lemon verbena sorbet. For mains there’s radish “scallops” served with a spicy, raw cauliflower couscous, a barley and shiitake mushroom risotto and pumpkin purée.
The uncooked vegan cake for dessert was a masterpiece of skill and creativity. Challenged by a past guest (a Moroccan princess at that), Hari was tasked with whipping up a new everything-free dessert. The result: a “marzipan” layered cake filled with avocado, mango and fresh grated coconut that’s glazed with a coconut milk and cocoa ganache.
This beach-side abode is where bountiful breakfasts and well-orchestrated themed evenings take place.
Whether you’re coming straight from a sunrise big-game fishing trip, an open-air yoga class or a leisurely lie-in – the best way to see out the morning is here, fresh juice in hand.
Highlights of the curated buffet include an assortment of tropical fruits, pastries (the chocolate croissants are blissfully buttery), a frozen yoghurt stand and guacamole that’s mashed in front of you. A nearby, newly built cold room houses French cheeses, pyramids of home-made preserves (the pineapple and passionfruit jams could be eaten by the spoonful), pots and pots of infused honey and old-school apothecary style bottles with Ayurvedic elixirs to pop into smoothies. If you’d prefer to choose à la carte – the eggs benedict, or local Maldivian spicy reef-fish curry are what to order.
It’s all about culinary theatre and interactive cooking displays come sunset as the restaurant transforms into a Mediterranean spice souk, an exotic Asian street market or presents one of its Gili Culinary Journeys focusing on Indian, Turkish or Indonesian fare.
SUPERFOODS WITH A SUPER VIEW
Standing on stilts in a jade-blue lagoon, the sprawling, thatched-roof Overwater Bar floats in a dreamy setting.
Chef Hari’s superfood salad bowls are the stars on the menu here – they’re brimming with nutritional ingredients and packed with tantalising flavours. The Spicy & Spices salad is a zinging combination of green papaya, fried tofu, coriander, mint, long beans, cherry tomatoes and faro with a green curry sauce. Peanut bread is served alongside the dish for an extra bit of crunch. For a more local bite, there’s an option of marinated tuna with coconut, garden beach lettuce, yellow rice and sweet potato that comes with a zesty lime dressing.
At sunset, this abode is where you’ll want to be with a creamy coconut beverage in hand, watching the sun turn fiery orange and myriad shades of pink.
BY THE SEA
Open only for dinner, this intimate, fine-dining Japanese restaurant is, as its name suggests, set on the shore but is also surrounded by jungle foliage. Here, chef de cuisine Abraham Ada and his team conjure up outstanding sushi, sashimi and Japanese fusion dishes using only the freshest ingredients.
A local fisherman delivers his daily catch at 6pm to Gili – by 7pm two types of tuna, snapper and an array of reef fish are prepared and ready to serve to guests.
There’s also an open kitchen with a Teppanyaki griddle – this is always great fun to watch. And you can book a private cooking class with Abraham himself.
A HIDDEN GEM
Set at the bottom of an illuminated glass spiral staircase is an underground cellar – it’s the perfect hideaway for private dinners with premium grape pairings. This cool “cave” was designed around a huge piece of driftwood that was once swept ashore. It now serves as a striking banquet table which is engulfed by upcycled wooden walls.
You can certainly venture into new worlds down there, by also tasting various non-alcoholic wines matched with home-made chocolates. Great combinations are the “merlot” with a 70% cocoa, pepper-infused truffle and a glass of sparkling white-grape juice with milk chocolate filled with an Earl Grey praline.
DINING FOR THE SENSES
This blind-folded experience is Gili’s version of dining in the dark. It’s equally disconcerting and delightful – and definitely delicious. Your Man (or Woman) Friday (Gili’s Robinson Crusoe speak for personal butler) will pick you up in a golf cart, drive you around the island in circles (just to make sure you have no idea where you are) before leading you (slowly – depending on your trust levels) to a secret location.
From there, host Misah and the culinary team take over with a multi-sensory meal, designed to test the taste buds. I won’t give the menu away as that will ruin the fun. But my tip is to skip using cutlery and rely only on your hands. Also, by taking away your sight, your other senses will instantly heighten. Birds suddenly sound like they’re shrieking, waves lap louder, aromatic spices and seasoning fill the air and as the balmy evening breeze rustles through the palm trees, you will feel it tickling your skin.